A Helping Hand

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A decade ago, Ethiopian native Agitu Wodajo was new to Minnesota, and a student Metropolitan State University. She was not a citizen, was not yet authorized to work and had no welfare assistance. That didn’t stop this single mother of five from starting her own nonprofit organization, the International Self-Reliance Agency for Women (ISAW), as an internship project for school.

Ten years later, Wodajo’s agency is going strong. Although it’s not immediately apparent by looking around at the almost bare white walls of the 1,200-square-foot office, ISAW is one of the most comprehensive resources for African immigrant and refugee women in the Twin Cities. Computer training, culturally sensitive childcare programs, employment and housing assistance, services for battered women and their children, business incubation and legislative advocacy are just some of the ways ISAW attempts to facilitate self-sufficiency among 800 women each year.

Although she often works 12 or 14 hours a day, Wodajo loves what she does. In fact, she feels called to do it. “I received a call from God to dedicate the rest of my life for the well-being of needy women,” she explained.

Discovering what women need

ISAW was originally established in a much smaller office in 1996, affectionately referred to by the women who work with Wodajo as the “rat hole.” One of Wodajo’s first tasks was to survey 10 women who had lived in the U.S. for less than five years to learn about their needs.

“I had an idea, but I wanted to hear it from their own mouths instead of assuming it myself,” she recalled.

The women said they struggled with limited English skills, isolation, little or no formal education, lack of support services like culturally appropriate childcare and lack of access to affordable housing. In 2000 ISAW conducted a larger needs assessment survey to see how the dynamics had changed. They hadn’t. The women, newly arrived from countries like Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya and Sudan, still faced language, education and employment barriers.

A fresh start and fresh paint

In its role as a business incubator, ISAW has helped many women make a fresh start. “We help provide tech support to the women and manage the business for them until they are able,” Wodajo explained.

Biftu Merdassa, a 29-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, is one of ISAW’s success stories. Merdassa opened her own business, Global Braids and Salon, in St. Paul in August. “It’s beautiful!” exclaimed her three-year-old son, Joshua, of the bright orange space still smelling of fresh paint.

Merdassa came to Minnesota nine years ago. To earn money, she braided hair for friends and family, a skill she learned while growing up. And she dreamed of owning a hair braiding business.

“I’ve always wanted to do it. It’s always been on the back of my mind,” she said, her intense brown eyes ablaze. “When you work for somebody else, they decide how much you deserve off of what you work.”

In 2000, she went to ISAW with her idea. ISAW helped Merdassa and two other immigrant women open a hair braiding business that year, connecting them to training and helping find a location. ISAW signed the lease and made sure the rent was paid each month. ISAW also provided management training.

A year later, Merdassa decided to go to cosmetology school. “I wanted to know everything. I wanted to be licensed and I wanted to push it to the limit, because I knew braiding could go far if done professionally,” she said.

Besides a license, going to school gave Merdassa a great idea: she now wants to open her own hair braiding academy.

“All the schools in Minnesota are owned by Caucasians and they don’t understand curly African American women’s hair and how it works,” she said, playing with her own long, curly locks. “They would ask me to teach in their classroom, and after a point I was like ‘No, I’m paying $12,000 to get some education here so are you going to pay me for it or what?’”

In July, she opened her own salon, and she has plans to open a braiding school, too. ISAW helped out with the salon by signing the lease. Wodajo even paid the deposit out of her own pocket, although she’s quick to point out that Merdassa will pay the rent on her own.

Global Braids offers a variety of natural hair services, including braids, locks and twists; chemical and color treatments are coming soon, and the academy should be open within the next three years.

Merdassa attributes part of her success to the uniqueness of the hair braiding business; there isn’t a lot of competition, she said. But it also took a lot of hard work, education and the help of ISAW, she added.

For more information on ISAW call 612-692-8440, or visit www.isaw.org.

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